CAIRO -- Anyone who has driven America's interstate highway system is familiar with those standard blue signs near major exits indicating the services available ahead -- fuel, food and lodging.
Driving south on I-57 in Illinois, approaching the city of Cairo at the state's southernmost tip, most of the images on those blue signs have been erased. Only the "lodging" sign carries the logo of a single economy-class motel chain.
Get off on Exit 1, just before the highway crosses the river into Missouri, and it's just a short drive into town. A railroad overpass emblazoned with the name "Cairo" lets the driver know they've arrived. Just beyond, it becomes apparent why those highway signs are mostly blank.
The main street leading into town is dotted with one empty building after another -- buildings that used to be gas stations, convenience stores, local eateries, even a grocery store. There is no place left in town to buy gasoline or groceries. A single barbecue restaurant -- said by locals to be excellent -- is the only place for dining.
This city at the confluence of two of the mightiest rivers in the United States, the Ohio and the Mississippi, is the county seat of Alexander County, which once boasted a population of more than 25,000. It is now down to just 5,240, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. That was a drop of 36.4 percent just in the past 10 years, the biggest population decline of any county in the nation.
On the east side of town, just a few hundred feet from the Ohio River levee, Larry Klein sits in his office at the Cairo Public Utility Company, a nonprofit that serves the community and, oddly, also operates the town's only hardware store.
Klein, 63, has lived in Cairo all his life and has watched its decline firsthand. But he's not despondent - in fact, he remains hopeful.
"That's what this brings," Klein said, referring to a development project that has been on the drawing board in Cairo for at least a decade, but now is getting a big boost from the state.
"One of my reverend friends, he said, 'Larry, it brings us hope.' And that -- that's the best word to use."
The Rebuild Illinois capital improvements program is pumping $40 million into developing an enormous river port along the Mississippi River at Cairo. Klein serves as chairman of the Alexander Cairo Port District, which is in charge of the project.
It's estimated that about 80% of all the barge traffic in the United States passes by or through the confluence of the two great rivers. The river port at Cairo is envisioned as a facility where barges, as well as larger "river vessels," would unload cargo containers that come upstream from New Orleans onto rail cars and semis for distribution throughout North America.
Cairo is seen as a natural location for such a port because of its proximity to the two major rivers -- so natural, in fact, that many have wondered why it hasn't been done already.
State Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, a longtime advocate for the river project, said he hears that question often.
"People say, 'Well, senator, if this is such a great idea, why hadn't somebody already done it?" he said. "Well, why haven't we done a lot of things? I think this is showing, with the increase of traffic, trucks, with the demand for river transportation opportunities ... container transportation alone is expected to triple by the year 2030."
Alexander County is not alone in southern Illinois to see dramatic population declines in recent years. All five Illinois counties that border the Ohio River have had significant loss -- Pulaski, Pope and Hardin all more than 15%, while Massac County lost about 8.2% of its population.
Throughout America, the 2020 census revealed a sizable shift from rural counties to more urban and suburban areas. But the dramatic drop in Alexander County -- and Cairo in particular, which is now down to just more than 1,700 people -- is unique.
The area where Cairo now sits was first settled by French explorers. Lewis and Clark stopped there on their expedition to map the area of the Louisiana Purchase. And during the Civil War, it was the home of Fort Defiance, where Union soldiers led by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant defended the rivers from Confederate forces.
For many years after the war, Cairo was an important transportation hub for truck and rail traffic, as well as river traffic. Census data show its population peaked in 1920 at more than 15,000, but it has been in steady decline since then.
Some attribute that decline to racial tensions that have plagued the community for more than a century. In 1909, it was the site of a brutal lynching of a Black man named Will "Froggie" James, who had been charged with the rape and murder of a 22-year-old white woman. Tensions continued into the 1960s and 1970s when Blacks in the community staged a yearslong boycott of white businesses that refused to hire Black workers.
For decades, all of Cairo's public facilities were racially segregated, including its public housing complexes. That eventually ended as white families left the city and Black people made up a larger share of the overall population. The latest census showed Cairo is now 70% Black.
Those housing units, however, were closed and demolished in 2019 due to deplorable conditions, prompting the exodus of some 400 households who were given vouchers to move into any other public housing facility in the country.
Klein, however, said he thinks there are more complex reasons for the decline. Among other things, he points to the completion of I-57, which diverted highway traffic away from the city, and the stronger economic growth in nearby cities like Cape Girardeau, Missouri, that has pulled many people away for better jobs.
"I mean, there was no opportunity here," he said. "I was fortunate enough -- I don't know if it's a blessing or a curse -- to be able to find employment here and stay. Of course, I had five brothers. All of them had migrated out of here for work."
State Rep. Patrick Windhorst, a Republican from Metropolis, said he has seen the same thing happen throughout southern Illinois.
"We'll see our students, many of them, leave the state to go to college and they won't come back, which is not unusual to rural areas," he said. "A lot of young people are attracted to Nashville because it's a really booming area right now and it's only about two hours away from Metropolis."
But Windhorst said he also worries that the region is losing population even among people who stay in the area but choose to move across a state line.
"There are people who are my age and a little younger -- I'm in my mid-40s -- who work in Metropolis or work in Illinois, but just move right across the river to Paducah (Kentucky)," he said. "A common complaint is property taxes. A common complaint is there's more things to do there. They view it as having more opportunity. There is a component that people point to, basic overall taxation.
"They feel like they're paying less in taxes, they're getting more for their salary if they just move across a river."
Cairo is pinning its hopes on the river
The site where the river port is planned is about 5½ miles upstream from the confluence along the Mississippi. Driving along the levee that protects Cairo from the river, Klein points to the area where most of the port development would be built. It was once heavily developed, before truck traffic was diverted from the city, but is now mostly just grassland.
The land is owned by the utility company, which pays someone to cut hay on the land. Once the port is operational, the revenue would be split between Alexander County, the city of Cairo and the utility. Klein says the utility would use its share to reduce customer costs.
The hope is that the project will spur hundreds of construction jobs, and then hundreds more permanent jobs for workers at the port -- workers who, it is hoped, would buy homes in the area and provide an economic base for the redevelopment of grocery stores, drugstores, gas stations and other basic amenities lacking in the town.
The potential for that kind of economic impact has helped state lawmakers from the area gather support, first from former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, and now from Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, as well as lawmakers from both parties and all parts of the state.
"I've had full support of both sides of the aisle," Sen. Fowler said. "It's been phenomenal. You know, when I talk about this, and you have publications such as Waterways Journal that writes several articles ... they see the opportunity."
"I believe it's going to be an economic driver for the entire region," Rep. Windhorst said. "And not only for southernmost Illinois, but also western Kentucky and southeast Missouri. It's going to be, I believe, a big economic driver, even after its construction when it's in full operation."
The port district recently signed a project labor agreement, ensuring that an estimated 500 construction jobs will be filled by union labor, a key element in securing state funding from the Rebuild Illinois program.
"Cairo's river port will stand as a shining example of Illinois' leadership," Pritzker said at a ceremony marking the signing of that agreement. "Good jobs, multigenerational investments in economic growth and community revitalization -- this port will be a beacon, a beacon for progress in southern Illinois and for our entire state of Illinois."
The project is not a done deal. Klein noted that more than 20 state and federal permits must be obtained, including environmental permits as well as an OK from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the rivers.
"They are willing to bend over backward," Klein said of the Corps. "In our conversations we've had with them, they've never told us no."
Among the environmental concerns, he said, is that before the river levees were built early in the 20th century, much of the land where the project is planned was river bottom that was prone to flooding. And although it once was developed, it's now mostly vacant and the drainage systems haven't been maintained for 50 years or more.
"But there's been different improvements, let's say, made on the river side to control the channel, the flow of the river," Klein said. "That's been done in the last, say, 20 years to where it's actually shifted the main channel more toward Missouri, which allows more room on the Illinois side, and you don't get the sediment. Where we're wanting to place our docks, it doesn't have to be dredged. It maintains deep water year-round, ice-free water."
Assuming the permits all fall into place, Klein said construction could begin in 2022 and the port could be operational in 2024.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.